Thoreau visited Cape Cod in 1849, 1850, and 1853. These trips formed the basis for a series of essays, several of which Thoreau published in magazines. After Thoreau's death, the essays were gathered together and published as "Cape Cod" in 1865.
Thoreau's "Cape Cod" is different in tone in theme from his earlier books. The tone is leisurely and light. Instead of solitude or the wild woods, the picture that remains with me from this book is that of a long walk, or, as Thoreau puts it, a "ramble" through the sand and dunes of Cape Cod. The book is picturesque, full of humor and wry observation. Thoreau unforgettably describes the ocean, in its storms, vicissitudes, and moments of peace, the fish and the fishermen, the sands, birds, plants and lighthouses of Cape Cod, and the people. I have visited portions of the Masachusetts coast, but I have never been to Cape Cod. Thoreau took me there in his book.
The book is arranged into ten chapters. It opens with a description of the shipwreck of the St John on a rock off the Cape. Thoreau then describes a ride by coach across the Cape. But the heart of the book lies in the following chapters in which Thoreau with a companion walks the 30 mile beach from Nauset Harbor to Provincetown with many stops and diversions along the way. I felt the salt air and saw the fishermen and the sandy beach as I walked with Thoreau.
The most vivid characterization in the book is in the chapter "The Wellfleet Oysterman", as Thoreau describes a grizzled, taciturn, and ancient native of Cape Cod and his family who offer him hospitality for the night. Another memorable chapter involves the description of the Highland Lighthouse, no longer standing, and its keeper. The stops with the Oysterman and the Lighthouse punctuate Thoreau's long walks through the day over the beach and his meditiations about and descriptions of what he finds there.
Thoreaus walk ended at Provincetown, on the northernmost portion of Cape Cod, with its wood walkway, shanty houses, and ever-present scenes of fishermen, boats, and drying fish. Thoreau offers what I found an affectionate portrait of these hardy fishermen and their families. Following a description of what he found at Provincetown, Thoreau offers a great deal of historical background on the exploration of the Cape, from the Pilgrims reaching back to earlier French, Icelandic, and English explorers.
Thoreau's "Cape Cod" is a worthy companion to his books describing his experiences inland, on Walden Pond and on the rivers and woods of New England and Maine. It is beautifuly written with unforgettable descriptive passages. It made me want to get up and go from my life in the city, and over 150 years after Thoreau wrote, wander and walk for myself along the dunes and sands of Cape Cod.